Derry’s Bishop Donal McKeown speaks of his new role
Where the average individual might be described as ‘a man on a mission’, Bishop Donal McKeown is one best summed up as ‘a man on missions’.
In compiling background facts for the man who, by now, is growing used to his new title of Bishop of Derry, it is revealed that in his previous role as an auxiliary Bishop of Down & Connor, Bishop Donal served as chair to no fewer than 10 national committees and as a member of a further four.
(Included among them are the Episcopal Commission for Worship, Pastoral Renewal and Faith development, the Council for Clergy, the Council for Vocations, the Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development and the Council for Education.)
“Some will now have to be set aside,” Bishop Donal concedes, and it is with a measure of regret in the voice of a man who, in being announced for Derry, was described by Bishop Noel Treanor of Down & Connor as “a man of boundless energy and vibrant Christian hope”.
These, then, are some of the qualities the ‘new man’ for Derry brings to his bishopric, but where do they have their roots?
Born into a family of four children on April 12, 1950, in Randalstown, Co. Antirm, Donal McKeown was educated locally, and, through his father James, gained a love of Gaelic sports – both he and James played football and hurling with Creggan Kickhams GAA club.
At this stage of life, he says, “faith was an element of life that was taken for granted. There was prayer at home, the rosary, both McKeown boys were altar servers.” He points out that in the large extended family he was part of, there was one uncle a priest, an aunt a nun.
“Faith elements overlapped with the identity conveyed through the GAA club,” he says.
Vocation was by no means a given for the young Donal, and indeed, only came about as a result of a question posed by a teacher as Donal was studying for his A Levels. His secondary education came via Saint Mac Nissi’s College, Garron Tower between 1961 and 1968.
“That teacher was so encouraging of all his pupils,” Bishop McKeown recollects. “He asked me what career I might pursue after school, I said teaching, as my own mother had been a teacher, and he prompted me to consider the priesthood.”
Clearly his teacher had intuited something in the young man.
“Perhaps it was there subconsciously,” Bishop Donal agrees, pointing out that what the teacher had sown became a certainty through a young life lived no differently to others where priesthood is not the final destination.
“I travelled, I studied at third level,” Bishop Donal says, “and I had nine years in formation, ample time for a 27-year-old to believe and trust in the decision the Lord made for me.”
Third level education was at Queen’s University Belfast where he graduated in 1973 with an honours degree in German and Italian. (Bishop Donal is fluent in these languages in addition to Irish and has used all in communicating the ‘Catholic world’; from 1971 to 1973 he was Belfast correspondent for the German Catholic news agency, KNA, while, during his time in Rome he did media work with Vatican Radio and more locally, developed reports in the Irish language for RTE’s An Saol Mór.)
Travel, meanwhile, includes a five-year stint at the Gregorioan Pontifical University where he studied theology and philosophy.
On his return to Ireland, he was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Down and Connor in Randalstown on July 3, 1977.
A teaching post at St Patrick’s College in East Belfast was his first appointment as Fr Donal, together with a role assisting in the parish of Derriaghy.
This ‘first outing’, Bishop Donal describes as a blessing.
“I needed to be occupied and was very lucky to be placed in a very energetic parish.”
For those who might doubt the bishop’s “boundless energy”, he remains perhaps the only living Irish bishop to have completed a marathon – Belfast – where, in more recent years he has made up a relay team for the annual event.
In 1983, he returned as a teacher to his former secondary school, St Mac Nissi’s College. During this period, Fr Donal was also responsible for organising the annual diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes.
St Malachy’s College, Belfast, welcomed Fr Donal in 1987, where, in addition to teaching duties, he took responsibility for Saint Joseph’s Junior Seminary, serving as dean. His own learning continued at the same time, and as he was appointed president of St Malachy’s, gained his MBA in Educational Management from the University of Leicester.
In 2001, Fr Donal was appointed and Auxiliary Bishop of Down & Connor, gaining his numerous committee postings in the following years.
In an age where clerics face increased workloads and associated pressures, is there a ‘magic formula’ to be imparted by this most busy of bishops?
Nothing magic, he reveals, citing his own physical activity as the answer for him as “part of the method to keep healthy both in body and mind”.
Acknowledging that this may not be the answer many clerics might want, he nevertheless stresses that “it is vitally important for clergy to have outlets through which they maintain that healthy balance”.
“We are human,” he says, “and we, as clerics, need support in addition to the time in prayer that is afforded us.” Here he cites the friendships of other clergy, together with that of lay friends, male and female, creating perfect counterpoints to the ‘priestly pressures’.
“I enjoy being with young people,” he adds, refusing to kowtow to the skewed attitudes of the age. “They keep me young.” He stresses that this interaction with young people will remain an important part of what he does in Derry, “where the JPII Awards began”.
Returning to Derry, and his new appointment, Bishop Donal admits to simultaneous senses of “excitement and trepidation” in assuming the bishopric.
It is from biblical example that he gains that sense of balance once again.
“When one reads of Moses setting out into the wilderness or Paul undertaking his travels,” he says, “you realise all you can do is start out in faith. That means not trusting in the talents you have but in faith in the Lord and what he wants you to do.” He adds, however, “I’m blessed to be filled with enthusiasm”.
Taking his cue from Pope Francis, Bishop Donal says the key to the success of his tenure will be “finding time to be accessible to all, making time to spend with people”.
He is not slow to acknowledge that this will be as good for him as for the diocese and its faithful.
“Your biggest critics are your best friends,” he says, “they pull you into uncomfortable areas.”
When reminded that all will not necessarily be critical of so popular a figure arriving in Derry, he responds with a laugh: “I’ll pray not to flattered too much.”
Another Pope Francis reference suggests itself at this point, that of his insistence that followers of Jesus have to be at the uncomfortable margins. Just days ahead of the official installation ceremony, Derry was revealed as an undisputed unemployment black spot for all council areas recorded in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Across five demographic categories of those claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, Derry sadly topped all five categories. In an area truly marginalised, young people fared worst, with 14.4% of 18-24 now living via Jobseeker’s Allowance.
“Strabane, too,” the bishop adds quickly without prompting, signalling his clear awareness of the recently released statistics.
The question here, Bishop Donal stresses, becomes one of the Church’s wider role when faced with such want.
“Churches in GB have been remarkably vocal on questioning government policy,” he points out before returning to the specific realities for the Church in Northern Ireland and what ‘space’ it can occupy for the common good.
“In the Assembly, everyone is in government, so the Church has a role of ‘critical friend’,” he says, “so we have to be very aware of specific situations.”
Bishop McKeown demonstrates this when he next references the difficulties faced in Northern Ireland by Protestant working class males, “who are suffering in terms of educational achievement”.
“Human dignity, solidarity,” he says, citing elements of Catholic social thinking by way of demonstrating what the Church brings to the ‘table of debate’ with political powers.
“The Church can try to influence dialogue in the public square,” he explains, “while making sure debate is framed on moral principles.”
The Church locally, he insists, mirrors a local characteristic in this.
“We in Northern Ireland have been so involved in dialogue. It’s ingrained in us; people don’t often give us credit for that.
“That’s how you find answers, and Derry, the City of Culture, has done it better than most.”
And, it must be acknowledged, the local Churches have too. As other voices continued angry over years past, Bishop Donal is able to reference his counterparts in the Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland as leaders long used to mutual engagement for the good of their communities. Bishop Donal reveals that, on the morning of his installation he will visit the Church of Ireland cathedral of Christchurch, neighbouring St Eugene’s, to greet his counterpart there. With so much gained in recent years in Northern Ireland, what, then, to the future.
Bishop Donal suggests that, as he assumes his bishopric, it is at a “tipping point time” for the Church in Ireland, and therefore he plans to look back as much as look forward in dealing with his future in the diocese.
“There are great traditions, but great hurts too,” he says, explaining that the creation of healing as well as hope will be the mark of his ministry. He is careful to add that this should not be taken to mean that the Church should dwell in the past, or that people should, in the face of current woes, live simply for the here and now.
“The focus can’t just be on the here and now,” he says, insisting that the Church “must communicate the Lord’s plan for the future.”
For the ever busy Bishop Donal, however, there is no neglecting the here and now completely. He reveals that, in advance of his own ‘big day’, he has another, a family wedding he will attend in the days after this interview. And, then, with the choral strains celebrating his installation barely lost to the vaulted ceilings of St Eugene’s, the Bishop of Derry will travel around the diocese to meet his commitments during confirmation season.
To no great surprise, he confesses it is a schedule he relishes. But not alone for a chance to expend that great stock of energy; rather, he confides, it is the chance to get to know the faithful of his new diocese in the very best of settings.
“The Church is in the parishes,” he says. “The diocese is the family of parishes, but the work is done in the local parish by great priests.
“I hope to build on that wonderful work.”